Feb 24 2009


Tag: musingsmattholmes @ 11:30 pm

"What is it that motivates you to want to sail around the world?"

I’m been considering this question in greater depth lately–more people have been asking, and I’ve been more closely examining my standard response.

My standard response goes something like this: over the past decade I have experienced a substantial amount of adventuring around this country, largely through climbing and canyoneering, and the excitement and newness of those activities has faded.  Four years ago this culminated in looking for a next step, a new activity, a grander undertaking.  Learning to sail, then saving money to buy a boat, then buying a boat and fixing it up, then sailing the boat around the world–all of this combines into one very ambitious new adventure.

I want to encounter new people and new places, I want to experience things that take me beyond my current boundaries, I want a larger universe.  The few times I have traveled abroad have been rare and precious gifts.  Each occasion has provided unequaled education and inspiration–I return home invigorated–and I constantly ask myself what is my major malfunction, that I don’t travel more frequently.

I want to run away from it all.  Other cruisers commonly advise that escaping is a really bad reason to sail away.  Better to face your demons at home they say, deal with the root of the problem rather than running away, because the demons are really inside you and you’ll take them with you wherever you are.  They are surely right–but I also think that escape can be a good reason to go.  I want to escape those cancerous aspects of my current life that I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to excise for some time.  Sometimes one needs a dramatic departure from the current life–a discontinuity–in order to make a new start. 

I’ve started sleepwalking through this bay area life, and I hate that more than anything.  I hate the sleepwalking!  I think it happens to everyone, it’s a natural consequence of human makeup.  It’s evolution, our minds are hardwired to turn things into habits–it’s the smart thing for the body to do.  When an activity is new it takes extra time and concentration and energy; when it becomes a habit it requires little effort or thought, and we can do other tasks at the same time.  Learning to drive a car requires concentration; you have to actually think about turning the wheel and pressing on the gas and when to do it and how much, etc.  After you’ve been driving for a few years is is completely habitual and requires no conscious thought, and because of this you can eat food and carry on a conversation while driving.  Making habits is efficient and natural.  It also robs us of the excitement and risk associated with activities.  You figure out a route to work, you learn how to complete your job the same way every day, you eat at the same few restaurants each night, you sleep on the same side of the bed with your head at the same end, every day.  Eventually the whole day, the whole month, a whole year just becomes a habit–then you’re sleepwalking.  And the insidious thing about it is that sleepwalkers don’t realize they’re sleepwalking.  The mind doesn’t give you feedback about how habitual an activity is becoming.  It just gets easier and easier until you consider it boring and you don’t think about it anymore–if you’re like me, your day job provides an example.

Are these motivations sufficient?  A good enough justification for spending all of my money and time and putting everything on hold for five years in order to sail around the world?  Are the motivations strong enough to withstand the knowing look of a good friend (someone who can effortlessly identify and dissolve bullshit)?  Are they strong enough for my family–the watchdog reminding me to spend my life in a worthwhile way?  Am I bullshitting anybody?  Am I bullshitting myself? 

I am engaged; Karen and I are getting married next fall.  Karen and I have talked a lot about our future after the boat, and we are optimistic and excited about that part of life too.  So the question of motivation gets harder to answer, as life on land looks pretty promising too.  The sailing trip isn’t the same no-brainer easy "yes" activity that choosing to do a hard climb, grueling canyon, or lengthy road trip once was.  People talk about how hard it is to go skydiving–when the moment comes how can you jump out of the plane–but that’s why it’s so easy–it’s only a moment.  You just have to get up your gumption, your "f-it, just do it" for only an instant and then you’re out of the plane you’re committed and reasserting your commitment is irrelevant.  It only took a second of effort.  If you had to maintain the same motivation–that level of fearlessness that it takes to push yourself out into the air during that moment–if you had to constantly sustain that day in and day out for years, it would be impossible.  Preparing for this trip has not required just one single huge sacrifice or commitment or leap; it has required years of plodding sacrifice and commitment which will continue until the moment we sell the boat.

So you tell me: are my motivations sufficient?  Do my answers to the question justify all the time, effort, money, and sacrifice in order to take a sailing trip around the world?  My reasons for taking the trip haven’t changed, my motivations are intact.  So far I remain satisfied with my answers.  They don’t silence the internal questioning as easily as they once did–my life is more complicated than it was when we first embarked on this project–but they still quiet the doubts.  I examine my motivations much more frequently than before; my answers are correspondingly more polished, more carefully given.

Feb 22 2009

Energy Accountability–The Currency

Tag: energy efficiencymattholmes @ 2:12 am

The Amp-hour, Ah for short, is the currency of energy on the boat.  Every electrical device on the boat has an amperage rating; multiply the amperage rating by the number of hours it runs, and you get the Amp-hours that it consumed.  The stereo, for example, consumes 0.5 amps.  If I listen to music for 3 hours, I have used 1.5 Ah of energy.  Our battery capacity is currently about 130Ah (we will replace and upgrade the batteries before we depart).  So I could listen to music for 260 hours straight without recharging our batteries.

The electrical panel on the boat has both an ammeter and an amp-hour counter.  We can use the ammeter to determine the precise amperage of any device on the boat, and the amp-hour counter tracks exactly how much energy we have stored in the batteries.  At any point in time we can immediately measure the effect of turning something off.  When we open the icebox to get a cold beer, half of the time it will cause the refrigeration compressor to kick on for cooling: the ammeter shows the spike in energy usage.  In this sense, the energy cost of even the simplest conveniences is noted on a digital readout.

Everyone loves to talk about lights, to compare the energy efficiency of various lights.    We have three different types of overhead light on the boat: incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED.  These are the same choices that we have for home use.  On the boat, we have measured exactly how much energy each uses.  The incandescent uses 1.5A, the fluorescent .75A (on the brightest setting), and the LED .05A.  The incandescent uses 30 times more energy than the LED.  In our world, that means we could use the LED for 30 times longer than the incandescent before we use up our batteries. 

You can do some of these same calculations for your own home.  The currency of electricity in the domestic house is the kilowatt-hour (kWh), and every device has a wattage rating.  Our amp-hour is your kilowatt-hour.  To find the number of kWh consumed, multiply the wattage of the device by the hours it runs, and divide it by 1000.    A 100 watt lightbulb, left on for 5 hours, will consume 500 watt-hours; divide that by 1000 gives you 0.5 kWh.  The average cost of a kWh in california is 12 cents (US average is 11 cents), so it costs 6 cents to leave that lightbulb on for 5 hours.  Thus we come to the real reason why people aren’t doing more to save energy and to reduce carbon emissions: on land, POLLUTING IS CHEAP.  People can talk all they want, but realistically they aren’t going to change unless it directly affects them, and energy is just too cheap for people to notice the cost savings. 

Let’s compare home to boat.  With a single conversion factor we can convert home energy measured in kWh to sailboat energy measured in Ah. You may be surprised: 1kWh = 83Ah.  The moral of that story is that it takes a whole lot of amp-hours to make a single kilowatt-hour.  Our new batteries will hold about 500Ah, and a kWh costs 12 cents, so with a little calculation you can figure out that the value of the energy stored in our fully charged batteries is $0.72.  Yeah. 72 cents.

The purchase cost of those batteries is over $1100, but the value of the energy they store, fully charged, is less than a dollar–that’s the sailboat for you!  Remember those SAT analogies?  Here’s the sailing version:

land life :: sailboat life
73 cents :: 1,100 dollars

So, energy is not cheap on the boat.  Energy is cheap on land and there’s no incentive to reduce consumption–hence the polluting nature of our modern society.  But on the boat, we will spend $1200 on batteries for storage, $1100 on a wind generator, $1200 on solar panels, and we already own a $1000 tow generator.  And even with all this money spent on energy creation, and carefully counting every amp-hour made and used, we will probably still have to run our engine occasionally to make up an energy deficit–and that will cost us in the price of diesel fuel.  As a result, on the sailboat we are motivated to monitor energy usage in a realistic, practical way, and we are directly rewarded for saving energy.  And this is only one of many reasons why sailboat life motivates us to live SIMPLY and to live CLEANLY.

Feb 20 2009

Energy Accountability–Preface

Tag: energy efficiencymattholmes @ 5:15 am

 The front cover of the March National Geographic Magazine is titled "Saving Energy: It Starts at Home".  The article follows a few families trying to track and reduce their carbon emissions, by measuring and reducing their energy usage.  The article describes how these families have a hard time figuring out how much energy they are actually using, where it’s all going, and what techniques can legitimately alter their consumption. 

On the sailboat, we can instantly measure the energy savings of any flip of any switch.  I got fired up reading the article, because I realized that we have so much more real information and feedback to offer.  The sailboat is a miniature model of a self-sufficient society, complete with energy creation, storage, and consumption, and it’s all on a scale that can be measured and monitored and understood.  We make our own electricity and we store it in batteries.  And we can track every bit of energy that we make and every bit that we consume. 

Moreover, when we are out in the middle of an ocean, tracking our energy usage will not be some leisure exercise without consequence, as it was in the Nat Geo article.  If we don’t make enough energy with our few sources, or if we use too much energy with lights or the radio or any number of other devices, then the important systems on our boat will turn off.  Our lights will go out, our navigation instruments will go dead, we won’t even be able to start the engine.  Sure, we can always keep moving–provided there is wind–but we would be loathe to do so without such basic safety items requirements as nav lights at night, a radio for emergency communications, or a gps for navigation.  Keeping track of our energy usage will become a crucially important aspect of daily existence–not a mere exercise for the purpose of writing a magazine article.

—Future installments of the Energy Accountability series will describe the details of our electrical system and our efforts to balance our energy budget—stay tuned


Feb 20 2009


Tag: introspection,musingsJonathon Haradon @ 1:53 am
Everyone at my school — students, fellow teachers, and administration — has known about this sailing adventure for a couple of years now.  So it shouldn’t have come as a shock six weeks ago when Sarah, the principal (and my boss), emailed me this note: Jon, could you please get me your resignation letter as soon as you have a chance?  I want to start the search [for a new teacher] as soon as possible.  (Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind : ) Thanks, Sarah But it did. It shocked me. The note made me pause, blink, blink again, and contemplate the magnitude of the choice laid bare in the e-mail — quit my job or not —  and how it all began with seemingly innocuous choices four years ago. I’m about to quit my job, a job I’ve had for eight years. For Jonny, the purchase of the boat was the terrifyingly committing step. For me, this step is the extraordinarily committing one.  I think I know why. If things ever went sour or didn’t work out, I could simply shrug off buying the boat as a poor financial decision, like the decision I made to leave money in the stock market for the last six months. I wouldn’t be the first boat owner not to go sailing. But quitting my job is more undoable. I’ve got the job security of a teacher, and the comfort I derive from that snuck up on me, without me realizing it.  Why in my right mind would I let go of that?  I know plenty of other people who have asked me as much. Four years ago, when the idea for our trip was first hatched, it wasn’t so committing.  Matt and I had just taken our first sailing course, and the idea seemed more fanciful than anything else. It was distant and intangible. As a first step, we committed to saving some money. No big deal. In fact, we treated the money-saving as a competition, and spontaneously e-mailed each other screenshots of our savings account just to rub in our positions. It was playful, like keeping track of who has done more weekly push-ups.  Jump forward four years, and it doesn’t seem like a game anymore. I’m walking away from a career. I should have been able to fire off a resignation letter that same day in response. All it required was typing a few sentences, and after all, I’d already made the decision to resign four years ago. The decision to buy a boat took me down a path, and I’ve gotten so far along it that now much of what I do feels pre-ordained. My choices have become necessities of the circumstances I’ve put myself in, and I’m feeling swept along… and I don’t have any control. To try and take back a little control, I spent six weeks chewing on the decision to formalize my departure from my job.  What ended up happening was it chewed on me.  One little person on my shoulder would try and call me crazy.  If acted out on TV, that would be a  caricature of my  mom.  Another romanticized the possibilities.  That little person whispering in my ear would be some amalgamation of Tom Robbins’ fictional characters. I finally wrote the letter. I had to and felt that out-of control-feeling as I wrote it.  I hedged, however and asked for a leave of absence instead, which makes it easier for me to come back.  I also apologized to my principal for taking so long.   And even if I feel a loss of control in this particular decision, I kept coming back to the excitement I feel about what lies ahead.  About the learning that will happen, the experiences that will unfold.  Friendships created and deepened.  Now I’m impatient to get started, and scared about the scope and breadth of preparations we have yet to make.  I’m ready for the next chapter of my life. And it’s coming quickly!

Feb 18 2009

Can overboard!

Tag: musingsmattholmes @ 1:47 am

In the cosmic scheme of things, a sailor could lose at sea an object of far more value than a rubber bumper. But let’s be honest: we’re not at sea, and our pride is at stake, and we can’t afford to drop anything overboard — even a $20 bumper.

So when one of them (we have 6) ended up in the Bay last weekend, I wasn’t about to abandon it. Instead, I took it as an opportunity to practice Man Overboard (MOB) drills.

The MOB drill is a short series of steps designed to return the boat as rapidly as possible to the dropped object (or overboard crewmember). The idea is simple: you fall off, tack, aim slightly downwind of the object, head up, and hopefully come to a stop right at whatever (or whoever) fell overboard. It is a basic skill; every safe sailing crew should be drilled and practiced in its execution. If someone falls overboard in the Bay, you have about 15 minutes to pull him out of the cold (53 degree) water before he’s in serious trouble. If he’s a poor swimmer, and goes overboard in jeans and a hoodie, without any flotation device, you might only have twenty seconds.

Over the summer, Jonny and I had practiced MOB drills ad nauseum on much smaller, nimbler sailboats, J-22’s, up in Berkeley. Jonny would toss an old soda can into the water, and yell CAN OVERBOARD! as if some dreadful emergency were unfolding, and we’d sail over to it prontospeed. Perhaps because it was summer, and we were having so much fun, we felt that we’d developed at least moderate MOB skills.

This afternoon, I was sailing with Karen, Jeff, and Kristi, and a storm was moving in from the Northwest. We were approaching the short, dredged, channel that leads through otherwise shallow water into the marina. And this time, our MOB drill to retrieve the bumper was sobering.  The number of steps was not short, our return to the bumper was not rapid, and we were definitely not at a standstill when we got to it. We sailed right past it each time. We spent a frustrating half hour trying to retrieve it; meanwhile, the wind and chop picked up as the sun proceeded to set.

The only consolation is that we were able to consistently sail right up next to the bumper. If it had been a conscious person, he’d have been able to grab a line or a hand on the first pass. Not so with the inanimate bumper: it was a pain in the ass.  Every time we came up on it, our wake pushed it just out of reach. I hated that bumper.

On the 7th attempt, Jeff finally snagged it, and we turned back for the channel — and just in time, as it started to rain. As we approached the entrance, another bumper went into the water. (Whether it came untied or was dropped I am not sure.) This time I decided to douse the sails, fire up the engine, and drive over to retrieve it. As I began to motor around, the boat failed to respond.  It was at this point that I noticed how low the tide was, recognized that we were in a shallow area, and realized that we were running aground. I gunned the engine in an effort to plow our way through the silt, and back to the deep channel. At the same time, Kristi trimmed in the mainsail, to help us heel over (thereby reducing our draft and freeing the keel from the muck). It worked, and we made it into the deeper water without getting stuck.

But pursuing the bumper a second time was out of the question — especially since the bumper was headed straight for a sandbar like it was on a mission from god. I motored us home, dejected as ever on account of our cruddy MOB skills, our lost bumper, and our near grounding. Then, just as we were entering the marina — because what would insult be without injury — the engine began to overheat.  I thought we’d resolved that issue. Well, put it back on the list.

Back in slip B-19, it poured on us while we folded the sail, coiled the lines, and stowed everything. Everyone was drenched and shivering, too miserable to hang out for drinks. Kristi later came down with a cold. Karen and I went out for pizza, and on the way back home, just for kicks, took the local road along the shore, to see if we could spot our blue bumper in the dark.  Ludicrous, I know.

We pulled off the road in a spot where the water came within 20 feet of the road. I got out of the car and walked over to the rocks to have a look. Would you believe it? I spotted a piece of blue and walked a couple feet down the rocks and found our bumper. I even found a Nalgene right next to it, so I ended up coming out ahead for the day. Well, ahead by one measure.

Feb 15 2009

Of black sludge and liquid gold

Tag: boat workjonny5waldman @ 2:15 am

    Matt was driving north over the Bay Bridge. I was gazing out the passenger window, feeling pensive. This was two weeks ago. We’d spent the afternoon buying parts, and were eager to get back to the boat. Four tankers sat at anchor in the bay far below, in line with the current. I said it was neat how even in this modern world, boats and planes must understand and obey tides and currents and winds, etc — and how crazy it was that only cars don’t really have to make way for nature, unless it snows, or gets really windy, as it is prone to do on sections of I-80 in Wyoming. I asked Matt if he’d ever buy a diesel car, and he said that next time he’d like to, if they made a diesel something-or-other like an X-terra. He said it’d be cool to be able to work on it, and I didn’t dissuade him of the notion.

    We got to talking about the differences between diesel and unleaded engines — how the power from an unleaded engine is like the power required to ride a bike with sneakers, pounding only on the downstrokes,  while the power from a diesel engine is like the power required to ride a bike with clipless pedals, a nice smooth round even stroke. We were pretty proud of that metaphor. We talked about how an unleaded engine can propel a car from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, while a diesel engine can eventually propel a car to 60 while pulling 100,000 pounds; and how unleaded fuel in a diesel engine destroys it by exploding way too early in the cylinder, pushing the piston down too soon; and how diesel fuel in an unleaded engine just won’t explode no matter how big a spark you throw at it. We were grappling with the big picture, so that the little details of our engine would make more sense when we tinkered with it later. Thinking about it all, I marveled at how not-understood the distinction between diesel and unleaded engines probably is — akin, perhaps, to asking Americans to name the 3rd president or the capital of Nigeria.

    It was nearly sundown by the time we began installing the oil transfer pump. Matt in particular had been excited about the project for months, ever since he first changed the oil in the engine. That task — changing the oil — had been a bear. A total bitch. Because the drain plug was nearly inaccessible, and, at any rate, a drain pan wouldn’t fit under the engine, changing the oil the standard way wasn’t possible. Instead, it required pumping out the old oil via a long, narrow hose snaked in through the dip-stick tube, and then pumping in the new. It was such a laborious, lengthy, messy – -and apparently ineffective — solution that none of us wanted to change the oil, which is not a good thing. Hence the transfer pump. We planned to remove the drain plug, attach a valve, and connect a hose from it to the pump — so that from then on, changing the oil would require only the flip of a switch and the push of a button. it would be glorious.

    But first: how do I know the pumping-through-a-hose-snaked-in-through-the-dipstick-tube method was ineffective? Two ways. First: Our engine takes 4 quarts of oil; it says so in the engine manual. So an oil change should entail removing 4 quarts of nasty black oil, and putting 4 quarts of clean oil back in. But notes in the engine logbook, kept by the meticulous previous owners, reveal oil changes of less than 4 quarts. Since 1993, the numbers look like this: 3.75 qts, 3.5 qts, 3.5 qts, 3.75 qts, 3 qts, 3 qts, 3 qts. Given how inordinately difficult it is to manually pump the oil out of the dipstick tube a little bit at a time, these numbers aren’t so surprising. But what’s the point of changing the oil if you’re not going to change all of it? It’s like only flushing the toilet partway. Second: having changed the oil on cars, I am familiar with nasty, black used oil. The nasty, black, used oil in the bottom of our engine was something else. It was sludge. Big surprise, considering how hard it was to pump the gook out through a tiny hose.

    So: we screwed five bronze fittings (a 90-degree bend, a connector, a valve, another connector, and a hose fitting) together, put some bomber glue (3M’s 5200) on the threads just to be extra safe, and connected them to the spot where the drain plug had been. For what it’s worth, this was beneath the most inaccessible underside part of the engine, and required creative squirming just to get your arm in there, let alone use a wrench. After that, we mounted the pump on the bulkhead just above the engine, and connected the hoses. Then Matt wired it up. Finally, around midnight, we changed the oil by flipping a switch.

    The pump hummed, and the oil level in the 4-quart container began to fall. No mess was made. Nasty, sludge-like oil did not leak anywhere, or stain any clothes. The operation took only about five minutes. When the 4-qt oil jug was empty, we turned off the pump, closed the valve, and checked the oil level with the dipstick, just to make sure everything was OK. At first, the oil level seemed low, so we wiped the dipstick clean, put it back in, pulled it back out, and inspected it again. Matt grew serious. "Oh shit," he said,  "it looks like there’s water in the oil." I corrected him:  the new oil was so clean and transparent, and we were so accustomed to looking at black, oily sludge, that the new oil, thin and golden, looked watery. But it wasn’t. And we had the perfect amount, right between the MIN and MAX lines.

    I expect that our engine will be very happy with its new treatment.

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